Running ahead of time

PUNCTUALITY is one of the cardinal virtues, time being the supposedly precious thing it is, and to be filled, so the philosophers tell us, with constructive and worthwhile activities. However, those of us who pride ourselves on our punctuality are not usually punctual so much as far, far too early: which is not the same thing. During my life I have wasted more time waiting for it to pass outside places, or inside places, or just around the corner, or sitting on doorsteps, or pacing up and down and looking at my watch than there are minutes in a year. I cannot bring myself to believe it will not take longer than it does to get from A to B, and although I try, as though I were some rearing, prancing horse, to rein myself in, my anxiety to be off is so intense it seems more sensible to yield to it before I do myself an injury.

It is a much better plan, I argue, to get where I'm going to and then wait, so I gallop off, straining at the bit, arriving long before the theater doors are open or the train before the one before the one I meant to take has left the station. I am always, without fail, the first to arrive at a party and quite often precede my hosts, who can be heard shrieking with dismay through upstairs windows when I ring their bells.

It is really incurable as far as I am concerned. I have, on occasions, forced myself to be late, but never to the invitations of old friends, since they tend to get into a turmoil should I not be too early, envisaging all sorts of dire happenings.

It is all very laughable, of course, but I still think it is more polite to be early than late. I always marvel at hosts whose cooking is apparently so elastic it can be edible an hour after it should have been eaten. They wait, seemingly perfectly relaxed, for the late arrivals with their inevitable stories of getting lost, then proceed to serve a delectable meal with the minimum of fuss. My passion for punctuality, far more than my worry over dehydrating chicken (though this is acute) compels me to drag people to my table after the briefest of civilities, and latecomers have to catch up as best they can.

The British are, on the whole, punctual, though I fear becoming noticeably less so. It is possible that, albeit subconsciously, their promptness is prompted by the weather. People in warm climates are not so bound by the hours and will sit for days happily waiting for buses or friends to arrive. If there was a nice hot sun above, we might also be quite content to lean against a wall and let the minutes drift by. Doing so in this country gets us wet.

Though nature itself is not particularly punctual, deferring the advent of spring and producing frosts in June, it is foolish to hold it up as a criterion for successful living. Undoubtedly it would be pleasant if we could live spontaneously, sleeping when sleepy, eating when hungry, trading, talking, working, walking, when we felt so inclined. But think of the chaos! Think of the missed appointments! The heartbreaks! The confusions!

``Punctuality is the politeness of kings,'' said Louis XIII (though somehow I think he must have said it in French) and I agree with him. I know a lot of people can be late and still be loved, but I like to believe, even if I know it is not invariably true, that the early bird still catches that worm.

I like to think that should you call, I will be there. Definitely. Absolutely ready. Staring into space. Waiting.

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